The Reading Room

OLL’s June Birthday: Wilhelm von Humboldt (June 22, 1767 – April 8, 1835)

June’s OLL Birthday Essay goes out to Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt, generally known to history as Wilhelm von Humboldt.  A true polymath, he was a diplomat, philosopher, poet, linguist and anthropologist, who made crucial contributions to pedagogical theory and political philosophy.
Humboldt was born in Potsdam, the son of Alexander Georg von Humboldt, a major in the Prussian army and functionary at the Prussian court, and Maria Elisabeth Colomb, a well educated widow of a Prussian nobleman.  Maria already had a son by her late husband, also named Wilhelm, who was apparently a rakish rascal who has mostly disappeared from the family’s history.  Together with Alexander Georg she had three children, a daughter who died in infancy, and two sons, Wilhelm and Alexander (1769-1859), who grew up to be an renowned scholar, explorer, geographer and naturalist (and friend to Thomas Jefferson).  
Young Wilhelm grew up in an intellectually vibrant household, educated by his parents and tutors.  He studied at universities in both Frankfurt an der Oder and in Göttingen, but did not receive degrees or diplomas from either institution.  Yet, his experiences instilled in him a deep love of learning and an interest in education.
In 1791 he married a woman from a minor noble family, Caroline von Dacheröden.  Together they had eight children, five of whom survived to adulthood.  They seem to have had a happy marriage, though by the standards of the time it was highly unconventional.  They both allowed the other large amounts of independence and went for extended periods when they lived apart.  For the first years of their marriage they lived in Jena, next door to Friedrich Schiller (1788-1805) with whom they became life-long friends.  Between 1797 and 1819, Caroline accompanied her husband on most of his numerous diplomatic missions and embassies.  As an art historian herself, she befriended and patronized various German artists during their stays in Rome (1802-1803, 1805-1810, 1817-1819)and then while in Vienna (1810-1815) she made their home a center of social and cultural activity.  Upon their return to Berlin in 1819, she made her husband’s ancestral mansion in Tegel, a gathering place for politicians, scientists, artists, and writers.  
Around the time that Wilhelm married Caroline, he was completing work on an essay that would have a tremendous impact on the history of liberal thought, Ideen zu einem Versuch die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen.  It was published posthumously in 1852, and in 1854 translated in English with the mercifully shortened title, The Sphere and Duties of Government. (A 1969 translation by J.W.Burrow, subsequently published in a Liberty Fund edition, is entitled The Limits of State Action) Humboldt’s essay drew heavily on Enlightenment understandings of individual liberty, especially from Kant, but was also influenced by the embryonic forces that would soon produce the Romantic movement and, in Germany, the artistic and literary style known as Sturm und Drang.  An animating spirit that runs through the entire work is Humboldt’s interest in guaranteeing the freedom for each individual to develop his or her full potential.  In the process, he tried to work out realistic barriers to state action and interference, developing in the process an early version of what is now known as the “harm principle.”  The book was tremendously influential in the development of liberalism, and strongly influenced John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.  
Though the work as a whole was not published until many years after Humboldt’s death, he had published the sections on education separately.  These generated such interest that in 1809 he was appointed the Director of Education by the Prussian government, which he accepted (leaving Caroline behind in Rome).  He soon left, however, on a diplomatic mission to Vienna.  He continued to write on educational theory and pedagogy his whole life, however.  His educational ideal focused on the cultivation of a person’s mind and character, expressed by the German term Bildung. Such education, he argued, was the precursor to education in vocational and professional skills.  His ideas made a profound impression, not only in Germany but internationally as well, especially in the United States.  In 1810, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia opened the University of Berlin (now Humboldt University) based largely on the intellectual foundations laid by Humboldt.  The university’s emphasis on combining both teaching and research was revolutionary at the time, but has since come to characterize post-secondary education throughout the world.  Humboldt’s ideas about education were closely related to his political and social liberalism, which sought to allow individuals the fullest possible freedom to grow and develop their potential.
Besides his work as a public servant and educator, he was famous during his lifetime as a linguist.  He translated Pindar and Aeschylus into German, and also worked out an extensive linguistic and anthropological study on the Basques.  He also carried out linguistic research into the languages of the New World and southeast Asia.  His linguistic works were foundational to the development of the modern field of linguistics.  
The end of the Napoleonic Wars called him once more into active diplomatic service for the Kingdom of Prussia, and he was sent to the Congress of Vienna to work out the post-Napoleonic order for Europe.  While there, he successfully championed the causes of Jewish rights and emancipation, but failed in securing a liberal constitution which would have guaranteed basic rights and freedoms to the citizens of the newly established Germanic Confederation.  The Prussian authorities appointed him ambassador to Great Britain shortly thereafter.  Besides his diplomatic duties, he spent his free time studying Sanskrit in the British Museum, and working out a deal with the Rothschilds to provide aid to rebuild Prussia’s shattered post-war economy.  
He was recalled to Berlin in 1819, where he was posted to the Ministry of the Interior and appointed to a committee to draft a constitution for the kingdom.  The liberal constitution he produced was summarily dismissed, and his standing at court was further jeopardized by his vociferous objection to the ultra-reactionary and anti-liberal Karlsbad Decrees of the same year.  His strong liberal positions finally led by the end of the year to his dismissal from all of his official positions and duties.  He spent the rest of his life at the family estate in Tegel, working mostly on his anthropological and linguistic projects, in which he was assisted greatly by his younger brother Alexander.